WASHINGTON — Ex-EPA chief Christie Whitman was bombarded Monday with boos, hisses, and a host of accusations at a congressional hearing after making assurances it was safe to breathe the air around the ruined World Trade Center.
The confrontation between the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency and her fiercest critics grew heated at times, with members of the audience shouting out in anger, only to be gaveled down by the hearing chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler.
For three hours Whitman faced repeated charges from Nadler and others that the EPA's public statements in the wake of the attacks gave people a false sense of safety.
Whitman stuck to her long-held position that the government warned those working on the toxic debris pile to use respirators, while elsewhere in lower Manhattan the air was safe to the general public.
"There are indeed people to blame," Whitman said. "They are the terrorists who attacked the United States, not the men and women at all levels of government who worked heroically to protect and defend this country."
Nadler, a Democrat whose district includes the World Trade Center site, called the hearing after years of criticizing federal officials for what he says was a negligent and incomplete cleanup after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
He charged the Bush administration "has continued to make false, misleading and inaccurate statements, and refused to take remedial actions, even in the face of overwhelming evidence."
Whitman, the main focus of much of that criticism, called such allegations "misinformation, innuendo and downright falsehoods."
Her responses were for the most part calm and deliberate, but she answered with anger to questions from Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn.
"These were not whims, these were not decisions by a politician. Everything I said was based on what I was hearing from professionals," said Whitman, her voice rising.
Whitman: My son nearly died
"My son was in Building 7, congressman, and I almost lost him," she said, at which point Ellison jumped in and said he would not "stand here and allow you to try to obfuscate."
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Whitman shot back: "I'm not obfuscating. I have been called a liar even in this room today."
She has long insisted that her statements that the "air is safe" were aimed at those living and working near ground zero, not those who actually toiled on the toxic pile that included asbestos.
Video: Whitman: Giuliani didn't do his job "Was it wrong to try get the city back on its feet as quickly as possible in the safest way possible? Absolutely not... We weren't going to let the terrorists win," she said, which led to catcalls from the crowd.
Dozens of activists and Sept. 11 rescue workers came to the hearing, and some in the audience hissed when Whitman defended former Mayor Rudy Giuliani's handling of the health concerns.
"I think the city of New York did absolutely everything in its power to do what was right by the citizens of New York," Whitman said.
Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary subcommittee, said he worried that assigning blame to Whitman could frighten future leaders from giving public statements after another crisis.
"Officials might default to silence," Franks argued.
Survivor: She's a good dancer
Those who believe they were sickened by Sept. 11-related contamination found little in Whitman's testimony to change their opinion of her.
"It's probably one of the best dancing performances I've seen in a long time," said retired NYPD narcotics detective John Walcott, who now has leukemia.
"We are stunned that she's sticking to her story," said community activist Kimberly Flynn.
Since the attacks, independent government reviews have faulted the EPA's handling of the immediate aftermath and the agency's long-term cleanup program for nearby buildings.
A study of more than 20,000 people by Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York concluded that since the attacks, 70 percent of ground zero workers have suffered some sort of respiratory illness.
A separate medical study released last month found that rescue workers and firefighters contracted sarcoidosis, a serious lung-scarring disease, at a rate more than five times as high as in the years before the attacks.
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